‘Signs of the Times’: Mary Anne Erickson’s optimistic vision

Ever since she was a child, when she would go on summer road trips with her family, Mary Anne Erickson has been photographing roadside attractions and collecting souvenirs and memorabilia from the motels, restaurants and mom-and-pop tourist sites she visited. Her interest intensified in the 1970s, when she began painting these icons just as they were beginning to disappear, and they have been a fecund subject of her art ever since.

One of the star attractions of “Signs of the Times,” an exhibition of Erickson’s roadside art currently showing at Oriole 9 in Woodstock, is a painting of a former local landmark, the Skytop Steakhouse sign: a glowing beacon spelling STEAKHOUSE that for years greeted travelers on the New York State Thruway headed north. The huge red letters, supported on a metal scaffolding, loom above us, illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun, a mysterious, somewhat forbidding portent poised heroically against a twilight sky. The painting demonstrates Erickson’s knack for translating her photos into compelling works of art, which in this case convey both the lonely isolation of these oversized highway messengers as well as the hopeful-but-ultimately-thwarted ambition of their small-time proprietors, fated to be swept away by corporate chain sprawl.

Erickson captured a lot of the stories associated with these places in her blog, www.vanishingroadside.com. She created her own roadside attraction by designing the vintage sign for Bistro-to-Go, the takeout and catering place on Route 28 that she started with her chef husband, Richard Erickson, after giving up their Woodstock-based restaurant, the Blue Mountain Bistro. The couple recently self-published a cookbook, Feel Good Food, which is available online and in local bookstores.

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She also makes collages, writes and has exhibited prints of photos she took on a three-week trip to northern India at the Arts Society of Kingston. Erickson wrote about her trip for the Huffington Post and also contributed travel articles to TripAdvisor. Originally from Seattle, she graduated from the Art Center College of Design in 1973 and worked as a graphic designer and illustrator in New York City for 18 years, with her work appearing in national publications and in movie posters and book and album covers. Lynn Woods recently interviewed Erickson.

What would you like me to know about the show?

The exhibition is a continuation of my 35-plus years of painting signs. I have a couple of paintings from photos I took in 1977. They’re very evocative, and one of my fascinations is trying to find the stories about who these businesses were. A friend who’s also an artist and grew up in Hays, Kansas knew of my passion and had a great picture of the sign for Al’s Chickenette, which I painted (and is one of the few pictures that didn’t come from my own photos). Her family went there every Sunday for the chicken dinner. After being open for 50 years, they were about to go out of business, when a transgender person who owned a fried chicken franchise bought it, fixed it up, and now it’s flourishing.

Sometimes when I’m promoting a painting I’ll ask if anyone knows more about the history of the place. I did a painting of Henry’s Hot Dogs, located on Route 66 in Cicero, Illinois, which is the first thing you see on Route 66 when driving out of Chicago. I just got an e-mail from the son of the original owner of the place telling me the story about his dad, how he started it as a hotdog stand and his passion for Route 66.

I’ve collected the images that are most compelling. One of them is of a mural in Sea Bright, New Jersey. I’ve always loved those postcards with the giant letters, and after the town was wiped out by Hurricane Sandy, one of the major paint companies donated paint for all the buildings that were being rebuilt. On the side of one, an artist painted one of those postcards with “Greetings from Sea Bright, NJ” in it. Driving by one night, I saw some teenage girls standing around the sign, snapped a few pics and did a painting, which is a painting within a painting.

You are documenting a lost culture.

I’m a documentarian, and now I feel like a preservationist, since a lot of these signs are gone. Some end up in neon boneyards or museums. The mid-20th century was the Golden Age. Neon sign designers were incredible artists. In the 1960s, when urban renewal was popular, many communities thought neon was tacky, and in places it was banned. Later it was replaced by backlit signs.

You brought a piece of that Golden Age back with the neon sign you designed for Bistro-to-Go. Was it easy to execute?

We priced it out, and it would have been $20,000 to do it in neon. We worked with Kurt Boyer, who has his own sign company. He created it from my design and did it for half the price with LED tubes.

Are you still discovering signs on your travels?

I spent a few weeks traveling around South Florida searching for some great signs, and sadly they are all gone, except for South Beach in Miami. Partly it’s because of all the hurricanes. I’ve been told there are still a lot of older signs in the Panhandle. You have to go on the back roads. We were in Tucson, where they did an upgrade of the Miracle Mile, which used to be the main drag and had a lot of rundown motels, drugs and prostitution. A couple of City Council members made it their mission to upgrade the place and brought in grant money to clean it up, get the motels up and running. They preserved it and have made the whole area more respectable.

In 2014 you took a trip on Route 66, which I imagine is the motherlode for vernacular roadside culture.

Route 66 has the benefit of fame. It attracts Japanese tourists. Taking a motorcycle trip on it is a big deal for Germans: They fly to LA, rent motorcycles and tour the whole thing. Other businesses rent out vintage cars. The states of Illinois, Missouri and Oklahoma do an amazing job of preserving their roadside landmark signage. There’s a lot of grant money available, and they have literally gone in and handpicked the neon signs that are really important, helping to bolster and rebuild some of the businesses. For example, the Boots Motel in Missouri received grant money and has been completely rebuilt.

One of my favorites is the Blue Swallow Motel. When we stopped there, we met a woman who was cleaning the rooms and was the owner. She and her husband had lived in the Detroit area. He was a former car executive, and when he retired, they saw an ad for this motel in New Mexico and bought it. There were little carports built next to each room, which led to the term “motor hotel,” shortened to motel. I documented some of this for my travel blog. 

What have you been working on recently?

My husband and I spent the last five years working on the cookbook Feel Good Food, which took me away from painting roadside images. We self-published the book last September. I did all the artwork, consisting of 160 watercolors and line drawings, as well as the photography and design (with the help of my son). I also co-wrote the book with my husband, Richard. We started promoting it during the holidays and have done very well with it. In January I started painting vintage roadside again.

You were very inspired by your trip to India in 2015, which led to a show of photographs. 

I came back and edited all the photos from that trip. Some were moody shots from Varanasi, where they have the funeral pyres. The Ganges is like a goddess. We caught the sunset and sunrise in a boat, when it was very foggy and smoky. I have a deep spiritual connection to a lot of those photos. I felt I had to create something totally different from anything I’ve ever done. I worked with Stephen Kerner, who has these giant printers and can print on anything. I had the images printed on Indian silk and cotton and decided to hang them suspended from the ceiling, so that they floated, which captured that ethereal quality. I also wrote sacred poetry to accompany each image.

You seem to find creative inspiration in everything you do.

There’s an incredible series on Netflix about creativity, in which people in different creative disciplines were interviewed. One interviewee was Paula Scher, a graphic designer who created typography based on diagonals. She said all artists have a tendency to continue to replicate what they know how to do. I’m proficient as a watercolorist and I know how to draw and paint with oils, so that India series was a creative leap for me. I had to pull it out of my gut. I also love doing printmaking workshops at the Woodstock School of Art, which helps keep my mind sharp. A few years ago, I made a series of collages called Collage-urbation: Creatively Playing with Myself, in which first thing every morning I would make a collage, based on whatever I was feeling in the moment. It was very fun and freeing.

In this digital age, wasn’t it difficult getting the print imagery?

No! I have drawers and drawers of material. When I was in art school, I started a photo morgue. I have four legal-sized file drawers of filed and categorized images starting in the early ‘70s, which I’m leaving in my will to the Woodstock Library.

How long have you been painting?

When I was in third grade, my parents started me out with art lessons and we painted outside: landscapes.

You also paint plein air, which is a different process from painting from photographs.

I have loved Kate McGloughlin’s “Simplifying the Landscape” course [at the Woodstock School of Art]. I tend to create very perfect finishes when painting from photos, so this class helped me loosen up. Plus, she is so much fun to be with. It’s a good exercise for me. I have also done some fun workshops on Cape Cod with Mary Anne Goetz, where you set up your easel outside and find something to paint.

You also own a restaurant. How do you find time to paint?

I usually go to work around one, so I paint in the mornings. I’m the general manager and oversee the operations, as well as supervising catering jobs. In order to create balance in life, we need to plan our downtime well in advance — sometimes a year ahead. We have plans to go to Stowe, Vermont at the end of the catering season in November.

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I also did workshops in Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas with Kate, which was a neat combination of printmaking and painting; plus, we learned to make mole in a cooking class. One of the advantages of traveling with a group of artists is you prioritize being an artist; it’s not just about the travel.

From 1993 to 2005, you owned the Blue Mountain Bistro. Is life easier now?

The food service industry is never easy. You have to constantly scrutinize your product for quality and health standards. There’s a lot of social responsibility connected with it. Now it’s certainly better hours, and we love not owning a bar. We wanted to create a business model that’s profitable, which not too many restaurants are. We were city-dwellers who used to go to Zabar’s, and we thought the community could benefit from having a place with good food to go. We’ve been crazy successful. We have 25 employees and do catering every weekend. We feel we are part of the fabric of the community, which is extremely heartwarming.

Any special project you’re working on now?

We’re building a new house on a piece of land in Saugerties. It’s based on a design by Frank Lloyd Wright and is a copy of a house that was moved to a museum in Arkansas. The house is delivered as a kit, with subcontractors doing the interior. This will be our dream retirement home, and you might say one of our ultimate “art projects.”

“Signs of the Times,” paintings by Mary Anne Erickson, through August, weekdays 9 a.m.-4 p.m., weekends 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., closed Thursday, Oriole9 restaurant, 17 Tinker St., Woodstock; www.maryanneerickson.com.